Whether you’re still a competitive athlete or you’ve reached the “I want to be athletic and look good but have a desk job” stage of life, you realize you need to spend some quality time in the gym working on muscle building for performance. It’s hard to argue that there’s a more efficient tool for gaining strength and muscle than lifting weights. It’s also hard to argue that there’s a sub-set of all gym goers out there who have dialed in that whole “gain lots of muscle” thing more than bodybuilders.
However, given the recent rage in “functional fitness” (a term which always seems to be very loosely defined but spoken of with great authority), there’s a been backlash to the popularity that bodybuilding enjoyed in the 80’s and 90’s with the Weider brothers steering the ship. Like many things in life, it all seems to work on a pendulum and when it goes hard to one side (bodybuilding) it tends to go hard to the other side (anti-bodybuilding) when the answer, which is that most people are better off being more jacked than less jacked, is in the middle.
The current party line is all about how bodybuilding is bad. The stance is that people don’t need to walk around with “useless, non-functional muscle” (again, what does that even mean?) and that they should only be doing power movements, agility drills, kettlebells, and so on in order to reach the penultimate level of fitness. Anything that deviates from that formula is viewed as a waste of time and *gasp* vanity.
While I love athletic-based fitness more than most, let me clue you in to a little secret that has helped me develop hundreds of clients into better athletes than they had ever thought possible or reclaim the lost athleticism that they assumed was gone forever…
We do a fair amount of bodybuilding work at Relentless.
That’s right. Take away my athlete coaching card because we seek to make people look like they work out.
We might not spend much focus pumping away for hours on a machine weight stack, and there’s no tanning bed, but we do spend quality time nearly every training session looking to grow some muscle mass in certain areas. Look, the truth is that that extra muscle, in the right place, will make you stronger, improve your movement quality, act as a suit of armor for your joints, is correlated with a longer, healthier life, and… let’s be honest, it always helps to look better naked or clothed.
So here’s how we do it:
We start sessions with our mobilizations, speed and agility work, and big lifts. That’s when you’re the freshest and you can put the highest energy priority into the big stuff that’s going to matter the most. Next it’s on to any special exercises that you might need to build up your main lifts/improve your performance. After that it’s on to basic muscle building for assistance exercises, using mainly the Repetition Method of our three method approach. Speaking in generalities, this is usually 2-5 exercises for 2-4 sets (10-15 total sets) of 8-20 reps. Usually we perform them in a small circuit to sneak in an element of conditioning and fitness work.
That’s a fancy way of saying we do some bodybuilding to get a swole on.
Here’s three of my favorite areas to target for some extra work to provide that body armor as well as improve your looks.
Do Extra Shoulder Work
Whether it’s a wheel base or shoulders, the answer is the same: Like the commercial says, wider is better.
Chances are you’re getting plenty of pressing in your normal workouts through your Bench and/or Overhead Pressing, Jerks, Prowler Pushing, and gymnastics work. That’s all well and good, but the shoulder is a floating 360-degree joint and as such you need a metric shitload of stability at a lot of different angles to keep it that way. Overloading in one direction, which is way too common, is a recipe for the cranky shoulders that almost every lifter eventually complains about. Trust me, I know from experience.
So that’s where your exercises like Dumbbell Raises, Pull-aparts, Face Pulls, and isometric holds in various gymnastics positions can all come into play. Throw some of these in after your big upper body movements. Your shoulders and upper back will thank you.
Chicks love big biceps. You know who loves them even more? Dudes who think chicks love big biceps.
All jokes aside, it’s become very unpopular to suggest that athletes should do something so “non-functional” as a curl.
Non-functional? Absolutely not!
While I don’t think that most athletes or those who are training to be athletic need to dedicate a whole “arm day” to 15-25 sets of bicep work, some of it is a great thing. Here’s why:
1. Pulling is a massively important part of almost all athletic and life activities. You’re only as strong as your weakest link, and while you should be mostly using your bigger back muscles to do your pulling there’s no denying that the biceps play an important roll. If they’re stronger, you’ll pull better.
2. A few sets of curls thrown in every week can correct imbalances and help keep your elbows from getting cranky from all of the pressing that you’re doing. When you’re throwing down with benching, jerking, and other pressing movements then the triceps will get very strong. If you’ve got weak biceps opposing them then your elbows are going to be stuck in the middle of that tug of war and come out losing.
3. Man, just admit it. Bigger biceps are better than smaller biceps.
Add in 3-6 sets of some curl variation (hammer, Zottman, dumbbell, or drag) per week. Your elbows and your bro status will thank you. If you hate yourself but love the idea of toughening your elbows, do some “Poundstone Curls”, named for the World’s Strongest Man, Derek Poundstone, who made them popular. Grab an empty barbell and do 100 curls before you put the bar down. Try it before you knock it.
Do Extra Hamstring Work
Everyone talks about how they crush their hammies and smash their posterior chains with Deadlifts, Kettlebell Swings, Sled Drags, and Cleans. That’s all well and good, but remember that the hamstring muscle group doesn’t just attach and pull on the hip, which is the movement pattern that all of those exercises focus on.
They also work from the knee up, and if you are neglecting that pattern then you’re at risk of some weak tendons, ligaments, and potentially a strength imbalance around the knee with the quads… None of that is a good thing for anyone who wants to be a well-rounded adult athlete who wants to avoid a major knee injury.
This is where your glute-ham raises, Nordic Leg Curls, and Lying Leg Curls with either a machine (*gasp*) or bands can come into play. After your Squats and Deadlifts hit some high-rep hamstring exercise to finish them off.
Remember to view your development as a chain. Every quality that you need such as speed, strength, conditioning, mobility, AND muscle size and quality are links in that chain. If there’s a weak link then it’ll limit the overall potential strength of the chain. Don’t let something as simple as gaining a little muscle mass, which is probably the least complicated of those qualities, be the piece that holds you back.
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